Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Frank Zappa, "Them or Us" album review

Frank Zappa's 1984 release, Them Or Us, is a perfectly diverse and flowing compilation of Zappa and The Mothers of Invention's very own genre of mock-rock. With an academic and adventurous state of mind, this seamless album flows in and out and in between genres from start to finish, leaving lines blurred and heads melted.

The first track, "The Closer You Are" is simple and brilliant in its satire of every corny rock' n ' love ballad you've ever heard. Both the musical structure (it's in 6, it seems to me) of the song and the corny, cliché-ridden lyrics serve as evidence of Zappa's vastly superior compositional skills, as compared to most anyone else making new music in 1984.

The second track, "In France", is a funky number built from some filthy bass blues. Zappa's southern-twanged guitar riff fills the mid-section of this song, while a heavy tenor sax and flashing harmonica color in the top. This perfectly produced track is a response to the opening antics in "Closer You Are". "In France" displays The Mothers mastery of the Blues; a song so fully-composed and intricately layered and still so simple and groovy. As the title suggests, the lyrics are no less satirical and even slightly more overt in their sarcasm. Quick hint, the final line of the song is, "Ne-ver try-to get-your pee-nis su-ucked in FrAnce!"

By this time, we (the listener(s)) have settled in and are comfortably eager to hear whatever kind of crazy shit is coming next. "Ya Hozna" keeps pushing deeper as we slip quickly into this six-and-a-half minute, incoherent, background rock epic. A driving guitar riff and a steady, bouncing bass beat keep this track rolling under a heavy-toned chant. You can zone out, just nod your head, get all lost in thought while the pulse moves and subtly grooves your subconscious.

Falling back to reality, you splash-down in the pool of pleasantly veiled sarcasm that is "Sharleena". This is another comic love tune about a stalker, excellent of course, but the fifth track demands that i skip quickly over the fourth.

Somebody playing a late-night set somewhere needs to cover "Sinister Footwear II" soon (MMW comes to mind, but they would need help...Cyro Baptista, Kimock or Scofield, and the Antibalas horns, is all they'd need). This track runs so damn deep; just achingly ambitious in exploring its every dark corner of potential. Around the 2:30 mark, the song slips into another world. Led by the glockenspiel slash xylophone, the space-y and subtly thundering middle section will warp your mind (in a good way) if you're care-full. The crazy glockenspiel riff continues throughout most of the rest of the almost 9 minute track, expanded upon with Zappa's searing guitar solo stylings. This is by far the most impressive track on the album in terms of both musicality (composition) and performance (immaculate, as expected).

"Truck Driver Divorce, [is] very saa-ad," and transitions neatly out of "Sinister Footwear". It is also about 9 minutes, the fat back end of which is possessed by virtuosic improvisation from the whole band. I suppose it could be rehearsed and written, it doesn't really matter. Gnarly, is a good word for Zappa's style of effects-pedal funkified, fuck-show air-sculpture soloing techniques.

"Stevie's Spanking" is possibly the most pleasing, head-banging rock and/or roll song i've ever heard. Oh, it's all so simple, but something about the way they manipulate the layers of rhythm around the basic 4/4 drum-beat just makes you want to jump and convulse and wish that your amps went all the way to '11'. The expertly placed guitar fills in amongst the endlessly appealing bass line, that is, until it's time once again for Zappa to stop complimenting and fly off into his own world, dragging you along by his boot-lace. But not to worry, he always brings us back safely, landing right back in the thick, awesome muck where we started.

"Baby, Take Your Teeth Out..." is about old people and oral sex. "...there ain't nothin' left to talk about."

"Marqueson's Chicken" is more exploratory, instrumental rock. Amidst all the silliness on this album, the originality of Zappa's composing is always plain to see (or hear, i guess), as is the cohesive brilliance of his band.

"Planet Of My Dreams" is a brief, Broadway-inspired, almost Vaudeville piano number about how the Earth is "rotting at the seams". This is just another seemingly effortless and successful foray into yet another different genre for Zappa, complete with politically sadistic, yet somehow accurate poetry supporting the clever tune.

"Be In My Video" is a staple in the long line of The Mothers sarcastic songs about women. "Valley Girl", "Dirty Love" and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" are all classic Zappa tracks that mercilessly tease silly girls and all their situations in need of teasing. This particular track is obviously a comment on the burgeoning music video market in the 80's (which Zappa participated in, in his own way) and all the resulting ridiculousness (i.e. purple spandex, hip-exposing one-pieces, whorish and impossibly awkward dancing from women with big perms or little, stringy mullets). This song is still funny ('cuz it's still true) more than 20 years later, (except that pop-rap videos seem to have lost any sense of humor about the whole thing. I find a palpable sense of violence inherent in the half-naked women on (m)TV today).

The second to last track on the album is called "Frogs with Dirty Little Lips." This is suspiciously congruent to the second track, "In France", especially in it's blues-oriented, supremely funky disposition. The bass line is all you need to hear in order to enjoy this song. At this point there is little left to say, all you can do is smile and shake your head, and turn it up.

The fin-alley is a most excellent cover of the Allman Bros. classic, "Whipping Post". Naturally, Zappa's interpretation is cut-throat, exposing the innards of a song that could have almost been written by him in the first place. The precise percussion stands out, filling the song with the swinging rage contained in its natural state. The singing (not Zappa this time, the black bass player, if i'm not mistaken) is soul-fully on point as well.

One of the things this album shows me, is just how much Zappa influenced Phish. Zappa's songwriting sensibilities, expansive soloing and adventurous spontaneity obviously left a heavy impression on all four members of Phish. A quirky sense of humor combined with an obsessive passion for perfection in the music are defining traits of both groups of artists. After close listening of any Zappa, he can be instantly discovered in most Trey solo's (Trey Anastasio, lead guitar, Phish). And to this i say, Good for Trey for being a smart enough musician to emulate this wizard.

But Trey wasn't the only one, as Zappa's compositions have been interpreted by indie, emo, jam and every kind of rock bands, all alike, not to mention important symphony orchestra's and a cappella groups, who easily translate his complete-ly composed music.

Another short example of Zappa's style of mind, in 1982, he released the three-disc, all instrumental box set called, "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar." The idea behind it being that, by taking immediate advantage of recent evolutions in recording technology, Zappa had spliced guitar solo's captured from live performances and isolated them on the track. From there, he composed entirely new music around the existing guitar line. So the resulting three (3!) albums feature completely out-of-context guitar work, except that you'd never know it because the music is still so cool and coherent.

Turning back to "Them Or Us", the album is an excellent representative of the prescient, anti-establishment parody present in most all Zappa art. His thematic tracks show the sharp-witted versatility of a smart-aleck stand-up comedian, often provoking out-loud laughter, even if you only catch half his verse. This sense of humor emanates out of all Zappa's work. More than 60 studio and live album releases in addition to various other multi-media endeavors (books, feature-length movies, music video's, etc) beg exploration, because love it or hate it, it's at the very least interesting, and always some thing different. I will be forced to paraphrase this quote because i left my copy in a box in D.C., but in the middle of The Phish Book, there is a full spread about Zappa, and somewhere at the end of that short biography, the point is made that Zappa's work was so vast, so far-reaching and diverse, that the only person who could properly comprehend and appreciate the full measure of it was Zappa himself.

Zappa was one of the most creative men in a generation (or two). And he never took drugs, believe it or not. He was just a naturally prolific music man with a bigfancy mustache.

The last issue I would like to address here is a grammatical matter. My friend Riemer once pondered aloud, "Is 'Them Or Us' correct grammar?" The answer is yes. Most commonly, we hear it in reverse, as in, "It's us or them bub, what'll it be...etc", but there is in fact nothing grammatically wrong with flipping and reversing it. It's clever, see? see what he did there? Shift your paradigm, ma-aan.
Anyway, listen carefully. If you don't immediately need to hear it again after hearing it once, maybe you should listen again anyway, just in case you missed something the first time.

For the record, Frank Zappa was born December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. After about age 12 grew up in southern California. His first release was he and The Mothers 1966, "Freak Out!", a double-disc set (considered the second-ever such release in rock music history, only narrowly pre-empted by Bob Dylan's, "Blonde on Blonde", released earlier that same year). He died December 4, 1993 at the age of 52, from prostate cancer.

Album Recommendations (so much to choose from, where to start?)

Freak Out! (try it, buy it)
Joe's Garage (any/every Act)
Hot Rats
Them Or Us (obviously)
Jazz From Hell

One last thing. As accompaniment to "Them Or Us", Zappa published a short book of the same name. This is the Foreword to that book, taken from Zappa's official website (link below).


This cheesy little home-made book was prepared for the amusement of people who already enjoy Zappa music. It is not for intellectuals or other dead people. It is designed to answer one of the more troubling questions related to conceptual continuity: 'How do all of these things that don't have anything to do with each other fit together, forming a larger absurdity?' Your enjoyment of the contents could be enhanced by hearing some of the music described in the text. The albums shown on the back cover contain some of these songs. Other songs derive from 'Joe's Garage' and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch'. This is a story book. It is not a rock & roll biography. This is the only REAL & OFFICIAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK. All other books attempting to trade on my name are unauthorized and full of misinformation. This book is dedicated to all of the fans who have made the last 20 years of large-scale absurdities possible. This book used to be called 'Christmas In New Jersey'."



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